UCT PhD student Miengah Abrahams lies next to the megatheropod tracks found in western Lesotho. Abrahams is 1.6 m tall. Picture: UCT
UCT PhD student Miengah Abrahams lies next to the megatheropod tracks found in western Lesotho. Abrahams is 1.6 m tall. Picture: UCT

Imagine a huge, meat-eating dinosaur licking his lips in hunger as he towers over all the other creatures on the same landscape.

It might seem like the opening scene from a Steven Spielberg film‚ but now‚ an international group of scientists‚ led by the University of Cape Town (UCT)‚ has evidence of this exact scenario.

Massive footprints of a mega-carnivore that roamed around Southern Africa 200-million years ago have been found on an informal road near Maseru in Western Lesotho. The resulting study was published this week in online science journal PLOS One.

At that time (the beginning of the Jurassic Period) even the larger carnivorous dinosaurs were "relatively small"‚ according to a statement released by UCT‚ at about 3m to 5m in body length.

Photograph showing an overview of the Lesotho palaeosurface which contains the footprints of theropod dinosaurs and the 57 cm long megatheropod footprints. Inserts are of typical theropod footprints on the ancient surface in comparison to the megatheropod tracks. The Basotho boy is sitting next to a megatheropod footprint which was being cast in blue silicon rubber. Picture: UCT
Photograph showing an overview of the Lesotho palaeosurface which contains the footprints of theropod dinosaurs and the 57 cm long megatheropod footprints. Inserts are of typical theropod footprints on the ancient surface in comparison to the megatheropod tracks. The Basotho boy is sitting next to a megatheropod footprint which was being cast in blue silicon rubber. Picture: UCT

The footprints of this newly discovered, three-toed dinosaur have revealed to the scientists a creature estimated to be 9m in body length (similar to the height of a two-storey building)‚ with a hip height of 2.7m.

It has been classified as a megatheropod (mega meaning huge‚ and theropod referring to carnivorous dinosaurs‚ who had short forelimbs and walked and ran on their hind legs)‚ and has been named Kayentapus ambrokholohali.

"This animal would have roamed a landscape dominated by much smaller carnivorous dinosaurs and a variety of herbivorous and omnivorous dinosaurs‚" according to UCT’s statement.

These gigantic footprints — 50cm wide and 57cm long — are a find that provides a new window into that era. They are the largest theropod tracks found on the continent from this period; the only other place something similar has been spotted is in a mountain range in Poland.

UCT post-doctoral fellow Lara Sciscio‚ lead author on the publication and part of the discovery team‚ explained in online media outlet, The Conversation, how the finding fits into the broader discipline of untangling the dinosaur family tree: "The body fossil evidence for theropod dinosaurs in Southern Africa is slim. Luckily, the footprints they left behind are not. By studying these and other tracks, as well as the bone fossil record‚ scientists are able to tentatively link footprints to potential track-makers".

She said that‚ to date‚ "we have no body fossil material to match the K. ambrokholohali’s footprints"‚ but that hopefully they will soon "discover more unusual footprints and‚ from there‚ body fossils that will help add to our understanding of the complex ancient world".

 Estimated size of the Lesotho megatheropod based on the footprints discovered in Roma, Lesotho. Theropod image adapted, with permission, from Scott Hartman. Picture: UCT
Estimated size of the Lesotho megatheropod based on the footprints discovered in Roma, Lesotho. Theropod image adapted, with permission, from Scott Hartman. Picture: UCT

A key part of that understanding, in this case, is why this creature was so much bigger than the others dinosaurs from that time. According to Sciscio‚ the tracks appear "after a mass extinction event" that "allowed for the main competitors of theropod dinosaurs to be completely eradicated".

She says that killing off the competition‚ coupled with changes in ecosystem composition‚ probably gave theropod dinosaurs "free rein" to dominate the landscape and resources in this era.

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